Theresa May vows clampdown on gagging orders used to ‘unethically’ silence harassment victims
Ministers are considering a shake-up of the rules around gagging orders to stop victims of harassment and bullying being “unethically” silenced, Theresa May has revealed.
The issue of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) has been brought into sharp focus by revelations that a top businessman has won a court battle with the Daily Telegraph to stop it reporting details of alleged sexual harassment and racial abuse of staff.
The newspaper - which published a front-page splash on the claims this morning - says it has spent eight months investigating the individual.
But the Court of Appeal has granted a temporary injunction to the businessman after pointing to a string of non-disclosure settlements signed by those involved.
Mrs May was pressed on the case by Labour’s Jess Philips at today’s Prime Minister’s Questions, with the Birmingham Yardley MP warning that Britain’s laws allowed “rich and powerful men to do pretty much whatever they want as long as they can pay to keep it quiet”.
The Prime Minister said she could not comment “on a particular case that is currently before the courts” - but she hit out at “abhorrent” sexual harassment in the workplace and revealed that ministers are currently considering plans to overhaul the laws around NDAs.
“Non disclosure agreements cannot stop people from whistleblowing but it is clear some employers are using them unethically,” she told MPs.
“And the Government is going to bring forwards measures for consultation to seek to improve the regulation around non-disclosure agreements and make it absolutely explicit to employees when a non-disclosure agreement does not apply or cannot be enforced.”
But Labour accused the Government of having already watered down legal protections for harassment victims.
Jeremy Corbyn's spokesperson said: "The last Labour government passed a third party harassment protection in the Equality Act of 2010.
"That was repealed by the Coalition government and Labour is committed to reinstating that and to ensuring that it’s no longer legal to have non-disclosure agreements which prevent the disclosure of victimisation or harassment or discrimination."
The focus on gagging orders comes as Westminster reels from a major bullying and harassment scandal of its own.
A searing report by Dame Laura Cox - launched in the wake of the #MeToo movement and published last week - shed light on a culture of abuse and intimidation that is stopping victims from speaking out. The House of Commons Commission will meet later to decide how to respond to the inquiry's findings.
Figures published in June revealed that more than £2 million of taxpayers’ money had been spent on non-disclosure agreements for former House of Commons staff over the past five years.